Reading the Sacred in Torah: A Contemplative Practice

Review of Listening to the Heart of Genesis: A Contemplative Path, by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Cascade Books, 2021, pgs.249

Can a Jew delve into a rich piece of Christian tradition and create out of the encounter a powerful new Jewish practice, all the while becoming ever more passionate as a Jew? Listening to the Heart of Genesis: A Contemplative Path by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner answers that question with a resounding “yes”! Rabbi Berner’s book showcases her transformation of the Christian practice of lectio divina into the Jewish practice of kriat ha- kodesh. Both phrases translate as “reading the sacred.” In this book, Rabbi Berner invites the reader on a spiritual adventure, the brilliant fruit of her own journey learning an ancient Christian practice and transforming it into a modality for Jews to read Torah with new eyes. 

I could not possibly be more thrilled and grateful. Neither could the two rabbis in whose lineage Rabbi Berner has been trained and given the title rabbi. In the case of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014) to whom the book is dedicated, his endorsement appears within the book’s covers. For the other, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), one has to imagine his delight. To understand Rabbi Berner’s achievement and why it is a cause for celebration, we need to step back and consider how Jews have engaged with other religions, in particular Christianity, during the last seventy-five years. 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, work in the field of Jewish-Christian relations focused on Christians repairing their broken theology of Jews and Judaism. Christians and Jews collaborated on issues of shared civic concern—most notably in the civil rights and anti-war movements-- but rarely explored the more profound possibilities lurking in that relationship. A spiritual genius like Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 -1972) could share with Christian peers his own heart. But the project in his day was to conserve Jewish practices in the wake of the loss of much of European Jewry. Across the denominations, annual Thanksgiving services between local churches and synagogues were exercises in civility, in the best sense of that word. Meanwhile, many Jews quietly prayed that the Christians would remember not to mention the word, Christ.

At multiple Jewish-Christian dialogues in the United States, Israel, and Germany, I often heard the same refrain from my Jewish colleagues. Rarely was it so clearly stated as the day a rabbi told his Christian audience, “Let me be honest. What I want from you is that you not teach your children antisemitism and that you not try to convert mine.” Clearly, Christianity remained a challenge for Jews. Centuries of hurt were blocking our way. 

Throughout this time, there were Jews who were seekers, individuals born Jewish who sought contemplative disciplines to ground their lives. Ram Dass (born Richard Alper) was just one of many Jews who found their way to Eastern traditions. Jews filled the ranks of American Buddhism, becoming important leaders in that space. Not a few joined Sufi orders, became serious yoga practitioners, and devoted followers of a wide variety of spiritual paths. In fact, I once heard Reb Zalman complain that he enjoyed serving on interfaith panels, but he wished the Jewish people did not have to provide all the participants!

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Improbably, given his original location in Chabad Hasidism, in relation to Christians, Reb Zalman broke the mold. As early as 1955, he tiptoed into a spiritual encounter with a Christian leader and never looked back. At first, he wondered if his “anchor chains were long enough,” as he considered attending a class at Boston University with the great Christian teacher Reverend Howard Thurman. He decided that they were and “Spiritual Practices (with labs!)” changed his life. Thurman became a life-long spiritual hevrutah (study partner) for Reb Zalman who referred to the theologian and activist as his ‘black Rebbe’. 

In the meantime, Reb Zalman’s model of a deeply grounded Jewish leader open to the wisdom of other traditions—including Christianity—remained idiosyncratic. 

Reb Zalman not only wanted Jews to acknowledge those from whom we learned, but he was also eager to offer reciprocal gifts of Jewish practice to others. What’s more, he wanted to make this the heart and soul of interfaith encounters. He wrote:

There are few conversations in this universe as deeply satisfying to the heart as the dialogue of the devout. This dialogue is a sharing of how best to surrender and conform to the divine will, how to receive divine wisdom for our guidance, how to read scripture for the sake of the spirit, how to emulate - imitate - divine attributes. The counsel gained in such dialogue helps the worshiper to worship, the meditator to meditate, the adorer to adore, and the virtuous one who wished to become a devotee to become a virtuoso of devoutness.

Reb Zalman, borrowing a coinage from his Christian friend Matthew Fox, named his approach “deep ecumenism”. At the core of deep ecumenism is the recognition that we cannot just think our way to the people we hope to become. When Reb Zalman encountered his spiritual companions from other traditions, he was most eager to learn about their practices. What are the spiritual disciplines that help you move from your is to your ought? Deep ecumenism then, is about our common humanity, we are bodies who move, eat, sing, travel, read, create, and pause. What we learn from others can help us to live into our better selves and to create better communities. 

It is not surprising that many Reconstructionist rabbis—Rabbi Berner among them—were drawn to Renewal Judaism. In the first half of the twentieth century, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan laid the theoretical groundwork for much of what Reb Zalman put into action. Kaplan vigorously argued for Jews to understand their religious tradition as the product of human creativity, often enriched by the civilizations in which they lived. Kaplan’s innovation was not that Judaism should evolve—a study of Jewish history would show it has always done so—but that we could be transparent about the process. The Talmudic rabbis found clever ways to find the new hidden in the “white spaces” of Torah. When traditional Jews sit at the seder table and re-enact aspects of the Greek symposium, they don’t make a point of acknowledging their indebtedness to the ancient Greeks. Kaplan, on the other hand, told us to explicitly borrow and adapt. His own borrowings came from Emerson, James, and Dewey (and occasionally from progressive Protestant clergy of his day). In his earliest prayerbooks, he included a poem by the Indian mystic, Rabindranath Tagore. 

In recent years, wonderful new possibilities began to emerge for Jews in the Reconstructionist, Renewal, and other communities. Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s writings were an early inspiration. Thanks to Sylvia Boorstein, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, and Rachel Cowan (at the Cummings Foundation), rabbis began to learn how Mindfulness Practice could be a gift from a form of Buddhism to Judaism. Christian spiritual direction inspired Jews to create their own. Rabbi Shefa Gold transformed Sufi chant into an original path of Jewish prayer. When the Jewish Theological Seminary ordination exercises began with Gold’s chant ‘Ozi v’ zimrat Yah,’ one knew that the world was changing. Rabbi Berner’s work takes its place within this stream of rich cross-fertilization. 

FROM LECTIO DIVINA TO KRIAT HA-KODESH

Lectio Divina emerged in the very early centuries of the Church. St. Benedict in the 6th century established the practice as part of the monk’s routine. Essentially, it involves slowing down and listening to Scripture, not as an intellectual endeavor of study or analysis, but primarily as prayer. The goal is to hear Scripture speaking personally to the individual listener.  

The Christian who introduced me to lectio divina, Reverend Francesca Nuzzolese, loved the image of the cow chewing her cud to describe the practice. She quoted Thomas Cramner a leader in the English Reformation, who invited the reader into the texts this way. “Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort, and consolation of them”. 

In the words of Father Christopher Jamison, “the text is seen as a gift to be received, not a problem to be dissected..... let the text come to you”. 

Lectio divina, then is not Torah study as we know it, but more like a contemplative listening practice. It has grown in popularity in Christian circles in the years in which meditation, yoga, and other disciplines have also proliferated. While its origins are within the Roman Catholic church, Protestants in search of spiritual grounding have found themselves reaching back to the time before the Reformation to recover practices, lectio divina among them. 

Intrigued by her first exposure to this practice, Rabbi Berner joined a small group of Christians who met weekly and who welcomed her in. She experienced the readings of short pieces of Scripture aloud, with long pauses for silence and for listening with the “ears of the heart.” Various groups employ a variety of formats around the core idea. In the group with which Rabbi Berner learned, after the third reading of the text (followed by silence), each group member shared what they heard “Christ in the text” calling them to do or become. As in many lectio divina circles, they closed by coming to speech and prayer, each person offering a prayer for the person on their right.

Rabbi Berner realized that there would be modifications needed to transform this practice into a modality that would work for many Jews. She discerned that so much silence, without a cognitive learning element, would simply not fit most Jewish groups. Jews like to talk; Jews like to argue. This practice would have to include some of the heady, even as it drew Jews deeper into the heart dimension. For years, she had been trying to help her students bring their personal soul issues into engagement with Torah text. Now, she began to pilot her emerging method with students at Aleph Ordination Program and with lay people in synagogues. When ready, she gave her adapted Jewish practice a name, kriat ha-kodesh. Rabbi Berner had succeeded in creating a form that allows Jews to journey into the words of Torah and traditional commentary at the same time as they are invited into “the cracks and crevices of [their] own souls”.

Rabbi Berner wisely organized the chapters according to the traditional parshiot (the weekly Torah readings) so that it can easily be used by Jewish groups following the standard cycle of Torah readings. Even if groups are unconnected to the synagogue schedule, this book links them in. She begins each chapter with an essay that discusses the parasha (some take more than one chapter) with reference to a wealth of commentary and midrash. In boxes entitled “Text to Life,” the reader finds examples of individuals making connections between their own struggles and the stories in the Torah. Some of these examples come from Rabbi Berner’s own life or pastoral experiences, others from students in her groups, still others from stories she has heard. They provide a relatable bridge for the reader from the Torah text and commentaries to the final deep dive—‘Exploring the Text Within.” Rabbi Berner offers a line of text on which to ‘ruminate’ along with questions to ask oneself, alone or in a group. 

For example, take the famous line where Jacob, awakening from his dream exclaims, “Surely, God is in this place and I, I did not know it”.  Here we are asked to spend time with a piece of text that has perhaps been dulled by familiarity. We then find a quotation from a contemporary rabbi, Simcha Zevit. “Makom is a place of touching our innermost selves…a place where we touch eternity in the present moment.” Finally, the question is posed. “What is my most sacred and safest Makom?”

Throughout the book, Rabbi Berner’s erudition as a student of Torah is on display. The stories from her own life provide glimpses into a deep and luminous soul. Finally, the book concludes with helpful instructions for a leader to create a sacred container for the group meetings with attention to the rules that will support the process and set the time apart as holy. Here we see Rabbi Berner as a wise and skilled teacher. Clearly, she has learned much from her encounter with this Christian practice, but also from many decades as a rabbi, educator, and pastor.

While the examples in this book are taken almost entirely from the realm of personal spirituality, one can imagine how such grounding could then apply to the call for social change. This volume is devoted to Genesis, a book filled with personal relationships and family dynamics. I can easily picture a subsequent volume devoted to Exodus in which this contemplative listening practice results in clarity regarding one’s vocation in the world, in deployment toward activism. 

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE

Rabbi Berner stresses that this practice is not for Jews alone. The groups created around kriat ha-kodesh can welcome all comers, from any faith background. As projects like these emerge, questions come in their wake. As the boundaries of our communities become more fluid, fewer people locate themselves in legacy traditions and more claim multiple sources of identity. How will “interreligious encounter” change? Especially in a time when Jewish peoplehood is in need of new definitions, how will traditions like Judaism continue to flourish? 

Many of us have long hoped that if we could let down our barriers of fear and mistrust of the “Other,” we might be enriched and inspired by the insights, practices and models of faithful living found outside our borders. Now we are asking ourselves what happens when it is no longer clear who is the “Other” and where exactly are the borders.

The experience of religious encounters can indeed help us develop as people of faith. Now, in this time of religious churn and flux, deep ecumenism will need to continue to ask probing questions. Reb Zalman wondered if his anchor chains were long enough to explore spiritual labs with a Christian. Today, anchor chains are precisely what some of us are helping Jews to create in the first place! How can interfaith encounters help Jews ground themselves more soundly as Jews, even as they open themselves more widely? Rabbi Berner’s wise and beautiful book is a hopeful sign of just that possibility. 

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